The situation, wherein the leader-elect of the Ulster Unionist Party, like leaders before him, has ruled out electoral arrangements within unionism, only to make what must be a humiliating U-turn on North Belfast, speaks for itself. Less serious in its nature, it’s akin to watching a train-wreck in slow motion as a promising opportunity was opened up only to be closed down.
Anyone familiar with the factions and deeply felt yearnings for Unionist unity within the Ulster Unionist party, will not be surprised. Past experience shows that within the UUP the issue produces polarised debate. Over the years, members, including MLAs, unable to reconcile their convictions with the endorsement of what they deemed a betrayal of principle and agreed strategy, have left the party.
Election results indicate the same trend as pro-Union voters, unattracted by the faded glories of a less than perfect past, either abstain or give their endorsement to parties addressing the issues which determine the quality of their lives and those of their family.
Evidence relating to generational profiling indicate that this will continue. Old battles are not a priority for someone with a family member told that they have to wait months for a consultation prior to diagnosis of a chronic condition only to find their name added to an ever-lengthening waiting list.
Ironically, even though it was the DUP who broke the mould of unionism and eventually emerged as the largest voice, it is the UUP that attracts most criticism on the doorsteps. Every time the DUP mentions unionist unity the UUP voices no outright acceptance or rejection; largely due to the short-term get-out clause of: ‘’Country first, party second.” Cookie-cutter protestant Unionism based on a tired recipe with fading appeal is usually the outcome. Why can’t it be about roads, hospitals, jobs and schools?
Why wouldn’t the DUP continue to play the same tactic when it has worked so successfully by wrong-footing the UUP and playing on old suspicions and fears? Yet again, the DUP has dusted off the electoral drum of unionist unity. But, it is beginning to sound like a tired and slow anachronistic lament unmatched to the lyric of ‘new generation Unionism.’ This is about political corporate power.
In the light of the announcement on North Belfast many unaligned comments on social media are asking: “What is the purpose of the UUP?’ It is a question which requires a clear and unambiguous response matched to relevant politics and principled leadership. In the absence of these, if unionist unity is the priority, then a political marriage of convenience with the DUP seems the best option.
If it is that easy to agree a pact or come to an arrangement with a party which has mishandled Brexit, is mired in the sordid detail of RHI, a suspended MP, applies judgemental orthodoxy to social issues in its desire to put people in the closet and limit the rights of the community and, in locking horns on narrow cultural terrain, is party to the debacle that is Stormont, there can be little presenting as a barrier. It would appear from the decision reached, that the protestations directed by the UUP towards the DUP bear the hallmark of an unarmed and misguided torpedo.
A party that does not live its values and complies with a political arrangement which attempts to pre-determine the outcome is complicit in de-valuing democracy. Lack of voter choice is the collateral damage.
Were a merger to happen, the political landscape of unionism could be altered for the better. If there was one unionist party tomorrow, there would be two the next day so better to have these with clearly differentiated and articulated policies reflecting the preferences and values of forgotten pro-Union voters rather than the current situation where the worst conflict-prone traits of one narrow and tribal party comes to define both.
Unionism does not think as one. Better that this was reflected in the existence of clearly identifiable parties with clearly identifiable policies.